Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Unicorn Tapestries

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART consists of various New York museum sites, the most relevant for us being THE CLOISTERS.

Housed here are THE UNICORN TAPESTRIES, the set of seven depicting the hunt of the unicorn. These tapestries and the set at the Cluny were designed and woven about 1500 (~1490-1505) — a determination based on the materials used and the clothes and fashion depicted.

1) The Start of the Hunt

(12’1″ x 10’4″)
This looks like the start of a regular stag hunt. The Seigneur of the hunt is the center of three men; the others are probably his guests. They’re not dressed for hunting, nor riding horses, but they’re obviously rich.The greyhounds are in front: they chase by sight. The running hounds are in back: they chase by scent. The keeper of the hounds carries a horn. Grooms, pages, and other assistants would also attend. A scout signals hunters from behind walnut tree that the quarry has been sighted. He is one of the lymerers whose job is to go first in quest of game and bring fewmets (droppings).

Over 100 plants are accurately depicted among these seven tapestries, but from all different seasons. In the first and last tapestries the entire background is covered.Here, note the central tree (which appears in the first, third, fourth, and seventh tapestries). Here the cherry is above the feather with the AE. To the right of E is an English Daisy (which Chaucer immortalized), a strawberry, and a sweet violet below (signifying humility). The walnut is a symbol for Christ: the outer sheath = Christ’s flesh, the shell = the cross on which the flesh suffered, the kernel = the hidden divinity. The walnut also signifies durability.

Tradition has it that this set of tapestries was woven to celebrate a marriage ceremony. Does that explain the A and E? What about the F and R (in the third tapestry)? We don’t know. Probably a couple feet of materials has been lost from the tops: if these spaces originally contained a band of inscriptions, the became worn and illegible and so replaced with the skies perhaps.

2) The Unicorn Cleanses the Stream of Poison with its Horn

(12’1″ x 12’5″)
Serpents pollute waters with their poison (of sin), so we need unicorns for ecological purposes. Their horns were thought to be medicinally useful against poisons, so here the stream will be made safe and all the animals will be able to drink after the purification. The hunters must wait to give chase in this sport. In the Middle Ages and beyond, narwhal tusks were actually used as unicorn relics and sold for several times their weight in gold. According to Hildegard of Bingen, powdered unicorn liver mixed with egg yolks cures leprosy, and a belt made of unicorn hide and worn around the waist preserves one from pestilence and fevers.Familiar animals appear sufficiently lifelike; others are less convincing. According to medieval bestiaries, lion cubs are born dead but resurrected by the lion parent with licking. The leopard or panther is associated with the coat of Joseph and is loved by all creatures except dragons. Its many colors also signify the many attractions of the beloved. The genet (weasel) to the right is known to hunt mice, snakes, and basilisks. (Weasels, stags, panthers, and unicorns are the enemies of serpents.) This weasel looks at the hyena: a dirty brute. The hyena imitates the voice of the shepherd to bring men and dogs at night to ruin, and it hangs out in sepulchres. Dogs = fidelity. Rabbits = fertility (heirs, if this is a marriage tapestry). The nightingale above the fountain at left = love, spring. The pheasant appears with its mate “only in times of love.” It looks into the fountain, reminiscent of the narcissistic center in the garden of love in La Roman de la Rose.

Sage appears in silhouette against the fountain and also functions against poisons. In the lower right is a orange, associated with fertility and the exotic. Orange seeds in hot water and wine also resists poisons.

European goldfinches (bottom left of fountain) feed on seeds of thorns and thistles and so are associated with the crown of thorns, the passion, and redemption. Another finch appear left on the medlar, a thorny tree like the rose. The sixth tapestry has two finches in a spiny hawthorn behind the dead unicorn.) These birds were often kept as pets.

A yokel carries a spear. The lymerer, with the lymer (hound), has stubble because he was up before dawn and didn’t shave today.

Perhaps originally the skies contained text (vs. wasted space or coats-of-arms). This would wear out and not be worth repairing when the restoration was done.

3) The Unicorn Leaps into the Stream

(12’1″ x 14′)
The hunt is underway, the dogs unleashed, spears thrust. The unicorn leaps into a stream to elude the hunters. The baying of the dogs is one of the joys of the hunt, supposedly. Three dogs here pursue by water, one reluctantly. AE shows up on the dog collars. Is this a secret motto? The betrotheds’ initials? The FR was not part of the original tapestry but cut out and applied here to the added sky areas.The oak in center signifies fidelity, steadfastness. A field daisy (marguerite) appears between the ducks.

The partridge is a thief (a devil?). It steals others’ eggs and hatches them, like Satan and the baptized. It was also thought to be so fertile that if the wind blows towards a female partridge from a male she becomes pregnant.

A hawthorn brushes against the unicorn’s torso. The crown of thorns was made of hawthorn, and it also shows up in the sixth tapestry near the dead unicorn. The hawthorn also suggested love potency.

The pomegranate tree has many seeds under one rind, and so signifies the Church and generic plenitude. It also suggests Christ: you must open and look at the interior, penetrate to the inner suffering of the Redeemer to see the blood flowing for mankind. Older associations include fertility. The pomegranate is realistic here, vs. the stylized version in the seventh tapestry later.

4) The Unicorn Defends Himself

(12’1″ x 13’2″)
The unicorn, in the same position as when it was dipping its horn, here gores a dog and kicks at a hunter. Through presumed oversight of the designer or weaver, the unicorn has no ears here. The scene is of a stag hunt; only the unicorn could escape this. The seignour’s favorite hound is restrained. One dog’s collar is inscribed “Ofancre.”That a hunter = Gabriel may be a standard if strained interpretation; but here one hunter does have inscription on scabbard of sword: “Ave Regina C[oelorum]” = “Hail Queen of the Heavens.” Who are the other hunters though? Enemy pursuers of Christ?

We see a distant castle and an area of the presumably original sky vs. the added or redone skies.

Lots of fruit and nut trees appear: orange, walnut, strawberry, apricot, plum, cherry, peach (at low right) = fertility and aphrodisiacs.

The heron is a noble bird. It supposedly fears rainstorms, so the bird is a sign of bad weather. The heron is also known for it lofty flight, which is associated with the souls of the elect, flying to the serenity of heaven. The bird certainly looks serene here.

5) The Unicorn is Tamed and Betrayed by the Maiden

(two fragments: 68+” x 25+”; 76+” x 26″)
Later accounts claim that because these tapestries did not show signs of royalty, they were spared during from the destructive looting of the Revolution. The next generation of peasants used them “to protect from freezing the potatoes in their barns and also to cover their espalier trees.” A later descendent, a countess in 1850s, involved herself in collecting her family’s lost stuff and found on a tip some “old curtains” covering vegetables in a barn. It turned out to be the tapestries, and so there is the damage to this fifth one John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought them in the early 20th century and starting in 1949 had them on museum display.Here the hunters have given up the direct attack and have resorted to a ruse. Within a rose-covered fence, the maiden “tames” the unicorn, while giving the signal to the huntsman. Hildegard von Bingen said several maidens are better than one in capturing unicorns, but this one will do. She is not just attractive (in the standard medieval ways), but flirtatious, supple, and seductive.

Allegorically, as the unicorn surrenders his fierceness and becomes tame by means of a maiden, so Christ surrendered his divine nature and became human by means of the Virgin Mary (not counting the trickery in the unicorn story). Roses = Mary (white purity / red suffering) but love too. The association was condemned early on in Christianity because of pagan associations, but that didn’t last. Eve was associated with the thorn, Mary with the flower. The apple tree has obvious associations here.

Holly = Christ’s thorn, with prickly leaves but bright berries (associated with the Christmas nativity).

6) The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

(12’1″ x 12’9″)
Game would have been dismembered where slain, but the corpse here is brought to the lord and lady. A man grasps the horn and points towards them.Hawthorn and holly = the crown of thorns. The corpse is garlanded with a wreath of oak leaves that have grown unnaturally on thorny branches: oak = the constancy of the lover; the wreath = the crown of thorns.

A swan winds necks with its mate in the moat. We see a dove-cot in the castle; that’s part of castle life, but the dove is also associated with chastity or with mating for life. It also has associations with the Holy Spirit.

Two goldfinches appear in the spiny hawthorn behind the dead unicorn. They feed on seeds of thorns and thistles, and so are associated with the crown of thorns, passion, and redemption.

Other people are gossiping, even plotting, including a woman in red with tentacle-like curling fingers.

The hazelnut tree is entwined by a blackberry vine, noticeable because of its size and the nearby squirrel. The blackberry was considered to have been the burning bush of Moses, and so it prefigured Mary because of its not being consumed.

7) The Unicorn in Captivity

(12’1″ x 8’3″)
The unicorn is alive again, chained and entrapped, but seemingly content in its paradise garden. It appears to be bleeding from the hunt wounds but actually those are pomegranate seeds and dripping juices from the stylized tree.The butterfly over the carnation in front signifies resurrection and love, but earthly love. Two dragonflies zip around. There’s a Madonna lily with a dragonfly at it; these were popular in gardens and quite fragrant, and they also represent the sweetness of love. Madonna lilies are white, for purity, and gold within = Christ.

A frog is subtly included in the bottom right corner above the crest. Its croak is its love serenade for mating. A bone from its left side was considered an aphrodisiac. The frog is the enemy of water-snakes. Hildegard and others said that frogs were anti-toxins and could cure poisoning: strangle a frog over a poisoned body, place the dying frog on a bandage for an hour; the victim is safe for a year and a half.

[A different but famous set of tapestries called THE LADY AND THE UNICORN depicts the five senses and is housed at the Cluny Museum in Paris.]